Albemarle leaders hold town hall on transportation issues

Nearly 100 residents of northern Albemarle County gathered at Baker-Butler Elementary School on Monday to ask questions about how they will be affected by nearly $230 million in forthcoming constructions projects in the U.S. 29 corridor.

Supervisors Kenneth C. Boyd and Brad Sheffield held a joint town hall meeting to get feedback on the $51 million widening of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center, the $54 million northern extension of Berkmar Drive, and the $81 million grade-separated intersection at Rio Road.

“We’re really here to listen to your questions,” Boyd said.

“There’s a lot of input we still need to gather from the public,” Sheffield said.

All three projects are moving swiftly through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s development process. VDOT is seeking to hire one engineering firm to both design and build them. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne has stated all three projects are to be completed by the end of McAuliffe’s term in 2017.

Attendees were shown maps of all three projects, as well as information on the $17.1 million project to add lanes to U.S. 250 Bypass West and its on-ramp from U.S 29. That project is expected to be advertised for construction bids in December as a separate project.

Boyd began the meeting by gauging interest in the possibility of extending Ashwood Boulevard to the Berkmar Drive extension. Ashwood is the southern entrance to the Forest Lakes and Hollymead neighborhoods.

“I’d be in favor, but only if Berkmar goes up to the endpoint somewhere up above Kohl’s,” said Steve Janes, a retired engineer who lives in Forest Lakes.

Scott Elliff, a member of the Forest Lakes Community Association’s board of directors, said he was concerned that an Ashwood connector would open Berkmar Extended up to commercial development.

“I think it would have the unintended consequence of slowing down the light cycle to allow left-hand turns,” Elliff said. “The main thing you’re trying to do with these projects is speed up the through traffic.”

The concept of the Ashwood connector came from the Project Delivery Advisory Panel, a group of stakeholders assisting former VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet with his work. However, it also dates back to earlier county planning documents.

“It is shown in the Places29 Master Plan’s transportation section,” said Mark Graham, the county’s community development director. “It is not to provide for future development but to provide a diffuse transportation network to help move people around.”

Shucet, who is overseeing implementation of the projects, has said he will recommend that the state fund the project if the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization endorses it.

Other questions

Janes said he was concerned he would not be able to access businesses in Albemarle Square when the Rio Road intersection is constructed. VDOT plans to remove traffic lights and prohibit left turns permanently at an entrance to Albemarle Square and at an entrance to Fashion Square mall.

“I personally don’t like the idea of making it so you can’t take left-hand turns during construction,” Janes said. He said VDOT had the right policy when they decided not to close any turning movements at the Meadow Creek Parkway interchange during construction.

“It’s imperative you leave that light open in all four directions,” Janes said. “Build the parallel roads first and get all of the traffic out of the way, and then do the Rio Road interchange.”

However, Shucet has been adamant that the Rio Road interchange is VDOT’s main priority. The design term that gets the award will be given an incentive if they can complete construction in the intersection by the beginning of September 2016.

One resident of Polo Grounds Road said he was concerned that construction of all the projects would inundate his street with cut-through traffic.

“Polo Grounds Road is a throwback to 18th-century engineering,” Henry Martin said. “We have a one-lane underpass. I can tell you what’s going on U.S. 29 without a police scanner.”

Martin asked if temporary traffic lights could be installed to regulate flow through the underpass. He also asked if anything would be done to shore up the one-lane Proffit Road bridge, as that road also could experience more traffic during the construction.

Boyd asked VDOT to consider those options. Sheffield said the Albemarle County Police Department is already studying ways to increase enforcement.

“Construction is not going to start until early 2016, so we have plenty of time to think about this,” Sheffield said.

Other attendees encouraged VDOT to build a north-south multi-use trail as part of the widening of U.S. 29. The current plan is to build a traditional sidewalk on either side of the road, but a VDOT engineer said VDOT is examining if a single wide trail could be built on the eastern side of U.S. 29.

“We have to see what that costs and see what the environmental and right of way costs are,” said Joel DeNunzio, the administrator of VDOT’s Charlottesville residency.

VDOT plans to hold a location public hearing for Berkmar Drive Extended at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Doubletree Hotel.

A design public hearing for all three projects is scheduled for Oct. 14 at the Doubletree Hotel. That event will take place although the design for projects will not be finalized until after the Commonwealth Transportation Board awards a contract next February.

Boyd and Sheffield said they will continue to hold town hall meetings as more details are learned about the projects.